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15 Die in Somalia Fighting - 2002-02-18


Heavy fighting has left at least 15 people dead in a disputed town in southern Somalia, prompting the United Nations to withdraw international staff from its regional headquarters.

Witnesses say rival militias fired guns and artillery in a fierce battle that lasted several hours Monday in the southern Somali town of Bardera.

The fighting occurred between the Ethiopia-backed Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council and the Juba Valley Alliance, which supports the transitional national government in the capital, Mogadishu.

It was the second battle in a week between the two factions in Bardera, and it has set off alarms about a deteriorating security situation.

The United Nations is evacuating scores of international staffers from Baidoa, the main town in the region located about 175 kilometers northeast of Bardera.

A U.N. spokeswoman in Nairobi called the measure a "security precaution" and said there is no specific threat against United Nations personnel. She said local staff would continue to provide services offered by U.N. agencies in the drought-stricken region.

U.N. agencies stationed in Baidoa include the World Food Program, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund.

The U.N. is moving its people out via the Kenyan town of Mandera, on the border with Somalia. They will then proceed to Nairobi.

The United Nations says it hopes the staffers can return as soon as possible because of the life-threatening diseases and food shortages facing hundreds of thousands of people in southern Somalia.

The evacuation comes just one week after the U.N.'s deputy director for emergency relief, Carolyn McAskie, visited Baidoa as part of a campaign to convince international donors to increase their support for Somalia.

During her visit, Ms. McAskie told VOA that the security of U.N. staff is her biggest concern. She received pledges from local authorities and militia leaders she met that they would not interfere with U.N. operations.

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